Officials in the village of Canajoharie said the trio rescued Wednesday during flash flooding at Canajoharie Creek likely will not be forced to pay for the cost of the rescue, despite being charged with trespassing in the aftermath of the incident.
The rescue occurred Wednesday evening when emergency responders were called to Wintergreen Park for a report of people stranded in the creek. Rescuers found three people about 2,000 feet downstream from the park. A ropes team from the Canajoharie Fire Department performed a high angle rescue, extracting the three from the creek gorge.
Canajoharie Volunteer Fire Department Chief Frank Nestle said the team descended 205 feet down into the gorge to retrieve the three. No injuries were reported.
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The park was closed at 2 p.m. Wednesday because ot the threat of rising waters. A padlocked gate blocked the entrance to Wintergreen Park, and a cable was strung across part of the walking trail leading to the water. Officials said the three admitted to walking around both obstacles, as well as several no trespassing signs, which led to the charges.
Charged with trespassing was Dominique DeBella of Rome and Stefanie Lutz of Utica. A third unidentified juvenile accompanied the two women but was not charged.
Mayor Francis Avery said state law lacks a mechanism for recouping the cost of rescues from those who require aid while trespassing, which is a violation.
“We’ve looked at that in the past and have been informed by different legal council, more than one attorney, that we cannot charge [for rescues]. Because if I could I would,” Avery said.
Avery, a former Canajoharie village court judge, said he doesn’t believe a judge could make the two individuals charged to pay for the rescue.
“Trespassing is only a violation, which really isn’t any worse than a speeding ticket,” he said. “I don’t believe it rises to the level where a judge could impose restitution.”
He expressed concern for emergency personnel who are called upon to rescue those who put themselves in dangerous situations while trespassing.
“The park was closed at 2 p.m. The gate was shut, everything. And then they’re down there,” Avery said. “One of these days one of our rescue people are going to be seriously injured or killed. But I’m not allowed to charge.”
Neither DeBella nor Lutz could be reached for comment Thursday.
Avery and other officials struggled to estimate how much the rescue operation cost.
“I think it’s going to be well into the thousands but that’s only my guess,” Avery said.
Nestle said the department’s ropes were damaged during the rescue to the tune of $1,500. The jagged cliff edge above the gorge caused the damage, he said. He estimated an additional $2,000 for gas was spent by all of the agencies and equipment that showed up to Wintergreen Park.
Five other fire departments were on the scene in addition to the Canajoharie Volunteer Fire Department. A total of three rope teams responded to the emergency, as well as GAVAC ambulance corps, state police and three other law enforcement agencies, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The emergency management offices of both Fulton and Montgomery counties also responded.
Jeff Smith, director of the Montgomery County Emergency Management Office, said his office typically does not keep track of how much rescue operations cost.
“There’s really no avenue for us to recoup money like that so we don’t even keep those numbers,” he said. “It would be well more than a couple thousand. It would be nice if the court ordered some restitution for the municipality, but I think that’s an astronomical price at this point.”
The Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office did not return a request for comment on whether they would seek restitution from DeBella and Lutz.
Canajoharie Police Chief Bryan MacFadden said the decision to close Wintergreen Park typically falls to him and officials at the village’s Department of Public Works. He made the call Wednesday afternoon.
“If anyone thinks it should be closed we close it,” MacFadden said. “It’s been a really wet summer with all the rain we’ve been having. And not just rain showers, we’ve had some really torrential rain.”
MacFadden added, however, that major flash flooding events in Canajoharie Creek are rare and recent cases of water rising rapidly in the creek were surprising. A flash flood in the creek on July 12 resulted in 13 people needing to be rescued.
“It was just a surprise to everybody,” MacFadden said of the two floods. “The thing that’s crazy is I’ve worked here for 20 years and this is the second time this has happened where the water has risen that fast.”
Avery said none of the individuals in the July 12 incident were charged with trespassing because Wintergreen Park was open and they were in approved locations at the time the flood occurred.
Nestle said such incidents are more prone to happen during the spring thaw.
“Our problem too, especially [on July 12], is there were only a couple sprinkles of rain here and they got caught off guard,” Nestle said. “That’s the same thing that happened this time.”
He added that the department will likely have to take money out of its budget to pay for more rope after the rescue Wednesday.
“It does get very costly, yes, so it could become an issue,” said Nestle, if rescue operations continue to be necessary throughout the rest of the summer.
Nestle and Avery said signs prohibiting swimming in the creek are generally ignored.
“There’s some debate right now whether there’s supposed to be swimming. The sign says no swimming,” Nestle said.
Avery said there’s no way to enforce the prohibition on swimming beyond posting guards. “We’ve tried it with signage and we’ve warned people [on the village’s website], and they continue to go down there and swim,” Avery said.
Avery said there is discussion by the village board of adding flash flood warning signs to Wintergreen Park’s current signage.